Saturday, August 31, 2013

A little bit of hate reserved just for me

Martin Luther King has been in the news this week with much attendant reflection on the status of black people in the United States, and how it has changed - or not - in fifty years.

Big, societal themes and nation defining conversations.

Other conversations have rightly been continuing around the dreadful situation faced by lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in Russia. Though those conversations would do well to remember that in many parts of the world it's even worse. In 76 countries it is still illegal to even be gay (let alone transgender - in many countries this doesn't even appear in the judicial code as the law makers either have no consciousness of its difference from 'aberrant' sexual orientation, or regard the idea of it as just so inconceivably deviant that you don't even need laws).

And there are nations where vicious, life threatening hate is getting into its stride at full pace now. Countries like Uganda and Nigeria where LGB & T people are attacked and murdered with almost complete impunity and with - in effect - the full support of the state. Where there are laws appearing that require you to report anyone you suspect of being gay to the police - even if it's your own child - on pain of jail time. Countries like Jamaica, where the lives of LGB & T people are now deteriorating at top speed, at the hands of Church sponsored street violence.

If you're like me, sometimes these kinds of stories mean most when you take them down to the small, to the personal, to the individual.

I think of the person I met a few months ago who is trying to provide support and sustenance to LGB & T people through an organisation she helps run in St Petersburg. I think of a long walk I took with an ex politician from Serbia who had shared with me the stories of being publicly and humiliatingly professionally destroyed by the hate of his colleagues and the wider population because of his sexuality, and who ended up having to leave the country. I think of Africans I have met who have talked of being beaten, and of seeing gay friends beaten to death in front of them. Of the courageous trans activist who is unable to stay in one Ugandan village for more than a few days before the mob will find her and she is in mortal danger once more. When she travels, anyone who sits next to her on the bus is themselves in danger too. I think of my trans friend who finally sought asylum in Denmark after a tortuous journey from Central America in fear of her life, and whose welcome to Europe involved a spell in a detention centre where she was repeatedly raped as lawyers attempted to deport her.

And I thank God that I do not have to face these things.

Yet, at least. As the Nazis creep eastward from Russia and East Europe, as the pan democratic ideal of Europe begins to disintegrate, I am not so complacent as to think that one day someone with a buzz cut and tattoos might not learn about me too and decide to ruin my life.

Or even worse, get elected to do it.

It couldn't happen here? Of course it could. The protections I enjoy here are far from embedded, far from secure.

It can happen in any country where the individual does not securely own the right to define who they are, and have their basic value as a human being recognised. Where the state, or the fascist scum hanging around in the town centre, or the cleric steeped in fourteenth century religious hatreds, claims to know better - and can project a different definition of you to others with an authority given them by the law, by the culture, by stupidity, or by a country's lazy dereliction of its duty to protect what ultimately keeps us all safe.

In such a country, your simple assertion...
"I am a Muslim - or a Tutsi - or a Jew - and I am a human being, with the rights of other human beings".
 ...might be met with
"No. You are not a human being, and you do not have the rights of human beings".
That road can lead to Rwanda. Or to Belsen. Think it's a long road? The Bosnian civil war started in 1992. Srebrenica happened in 1995.

In what seedbed does this mentality start to grow? What do people need to think to be able to look away as these things start and as they happen?

I had a little taste of the answer this week. A tiny, humiliating glimpse of one of the grains of sand that can come together eventually to get the crowd to avert its eyes as the boot hits your face, or worse.

It was a small thing. It really wouldn't register at all in the lives of many of those who face the things I described above. And as abuse goes, every trans person reading this blog will have had worse (including me). But I was struck by it, what it meant and where it came from. I thought I had left it behind, and it reminded me that I never can. It hurt me, and I write about it now to externalise it and to examine it for what I think it was.

But first, a little background.

I have been fully 'transitioned', as the jargon goes, for some years now. I understand myself to be a woman. To be frank I have never heard any compelling definition of gender that does not reside ultimately and purely in this understanding - certainly if one is to avoid all the sterile reductive definitions (ie "Women have wombs" [what about the ones who have had a hysterectomy?] "Women have vaginas?" [what about the ones who have had radical surgery for cervical cancer?] "Women have breasts" [apart from the ones who have had them removed?] "Women have XX chromosomes" - [except for the ones who actually don't?]).

I am treated by those who know me, as a woman (though I have no way of knowing what they think inside, I hope it is of me as authentically who I see myself to be). The idea of essential 'maleness' is to me inconceivable and consequently absent in my inner life now.

I am female. I always was, though the world worked damned hard, with my collusion for a time, to stop me expressing it. And yes, I have a narrative. It's one of how I got eventually to be able to live an authentic life. That's what 'transgender' means to me. It's my story, and I will tell it to you if I trust you with it. Though the story has affected me deeply, it isn't 'me'. It's what happened to me.

After my dreadful divorce, some unspeakably painful years of family agony, after 26 hours of surgery in five separate procedures in two countries on the different sides of the world (and three weeks in hospital) funded by myself as the NHS wouldn't, plus hours of painful and costly hair removal, plus expensive voice work, plus psychotherapy, plus trying to get someone to treat my hormone needs, plus fighting with misinformed GPs, plus finding somewhere to live (and moving four times in five years), plus relaunching my career to a baffled industry, plus rebuilding my social life as almost everyone I knew had walked away from me...I got myself on my feet once more.

And in the last few months - it has taken a long time to be able to feel confident enough to do this - my mind has been turning to trying to find a partner. I was married a long time. Whilst I have learned to embrace the single life, and even enjoy aspects of it, I go through periods of powerful loneliness often. I reflect on an approaching old age, alone. I gave up so much of what I had, to get the chance to be me, and really I don't see why I can't have some of it back.

And that means a man. It mightn't have meant that, as sexual identity and gender identity are not the same. But - don't ask me why - I am attracted to guys. This makes me something quite simple to understand I think - a heterosexual woman.

Approaching the finding of a man is a minefield though. Right away the definition I give myself runs slap bang into the issue of what others might think I am - in this case what a heterosexual man might think I am.

And women with my story have approached this dilemma in a number of ways.

First off, there's the 'stealth' model. I hate the very idea of it, but I understand the fear from which it comes. It means never telling your story ever. Some have sustained relationships, even marriages, for years on this basis. Your boyfriend or husband remains completely unaware of what you have been through.

Obviously, there are some for whom this option is simply not possible. Your physical appearance is key. But also, your circumstances, public visibility or family all play a role in your chances of pulling something like this off. And you live a life in which you must be alert to any chance detail reappearing - with potentially a huge price tag attached.

Up to the 1980s, the advice from the medical profession to people like me was to adopt this approach. To 'disappear' from one's previous life entirely - cut off, as if dead, from all family and friends forever, and to launch a new life as if none of your story had ever happened. The general view was that transition in Britain without doing this was simply not possible, and that you were running a significant risk of being at best destitute, at worst, killed.

At the other end of the spectrum are the women who will only look in environments where a 'pre-qualified' sample of 'trans-accepting' men congregate. There are dating sites, clubs etc that are focussed on just this audience - and men (some guiltily, many without the knowledge of their wives) approach these spaces for a taste of 'forbidden fruit'. Though genuine loving relationships do form occasionally - I know of a couple - these environments also attract a significant number of male fetishists who fantasise and simply objectify people like me. No thanks.

Then there's the middle ground in which many sit. I am here.

I have spent time on 'mainstream' dating sites, where I portray myself as who I am, share my interests and values. I do not volunteer my 'story' at this stage, as to do so means immediately shutting down any possibility of contact. Society is full of such deep misunderstanding and prejudice that to do so in this setting would just mean wasting my monthly subscription entirely. Not to say attracting a fair amount of very unwelcome abuse.

In addition, that material isn't there because my past does not define me. It is simply my 'story' - and not all of it at that. I am defined, much more effectively and interestingly I hope (though it sometimes feels like a forlorn hope in the society in which I live) by my interests, by my politics, by how I adore the Mediterranean, by my taste in music or by my love for my children. I'm getting a collection of poetry together and hope to find a publisher - it's a part of my life in which I find great happiness. These are the things about which I talk in my online dating profile.  And because of those things, and because I can, I hope, look fairly presentable in some of the photographs I upload, I do get interest.

Choosing how to accommodate my story into face to face contact with a man, if I am seeing him, is now the big challenge. And it can be pretty frightening. People of my background have been attacked, even murdered when it becomes known - especially if the man has committed himself physically to you. The beating you can get even comes from something that has even been named in legal circles - it is called 'trans panic'.

But I am committed to taking that risk. I have to. If I am to achieve anything meaningful and authentic, this must be shared, somehow.

I rarely bring it up on the first date. This can require a certain quick wittedness (though I never ever lie, I simply try going into areas where it might arise if I can, and most guys love nothing more than talking about themselves so it's less difficult than you might think). And of course I know that most first dates won't lead to a second - he turns out to be anaesthetically dull, and I have the kind of evening which would have lost by an innings and several hundred runs in a match with some quietly drying paint.

On one occasion, I have shared some background during our first drink together. A sweet man, we talked and talked, though mostly about what he had been through. I could see he was becoming emotionally embroiled, and on the way to get a drink he unexpectedly planted a passionate kiss on my lips. I knew before we went any further, that I had to tell my story, as this could go wrong. I also felt that we had both been honest enough on a couple of other subjects to make it feel appropriate.

I was very nervous.  But he was simply confused. He didn't know what any of the words I had used meant. Immediately he wanted to know if I had a penis or a vagina - one of the lowpoints of my world is to have to field questions about my genitals like others do not, and a crowded pub is not where I would choose to respond to them either.

But he took it in his stride and was keen to see me again. I didn't want to see him again though. I do wish him well, but - as I heard someone put it once - he had more baggage than Terminal 5 on a bank holiday.

Another time - my happiest experience - I saw a lovely guy for a couple of months. We got to the fourth date, and I knew that he was falling for me powerfully. I was becoming fond of him too. It was time to bring up the 'story'. He was tremendous. I was practically hyperventilating with fear as I sat in his car and told him - this was in fact my first time of doing so. But it genuinely mattered not one jot to him. He listened, asked me to say nothing more for a moment, and took me in his arms.

Our relationship later moved to a conclusion, but it wasn't because of what I had said. We wanted different things. Thank you David. I will always be grateful.

And now we come to my most recent expedition. And I have run into something that has brought me up short. Destroyed my confidence. It's why I sat down to write today.

He seemed very promising. Gentle, interesting, a wry sense of humour. Strangely we shared an almost identical set of interests, and from what I could tell, values. We emailed for a time, then spoke on the phone, then arranged to meet up.

It was quite a subdued evening, as we shared a coffee and a fairly average meal in a cafe he liked, but we seemed to have a lot in common and talked easily about music, travel, other cultures, and a range of other things. He was shy, but seemed to open up and I felt he might be harbouring something attractive within.

He asked me about my ex husband...was it some sort of 'lure' as he might have been troubled by something? I didn't get that sense. I replied neutrally, though not dishonestly I felt, referring to my 'ex'. At the end of the evening, he pointedly kissed me - I turned my cheek so it would land there. Men who are troubled by some sort of sexual or gender ambiguity don't tend to do this.

And so I went home, genuinely undecided about him.

I waited 48 hours to hear from him - then finally in response to my prompt, I got the text below.

Now, let's take this message apart for a moment.

If you do not have my background you might perhaps see this as some sort of 'joke'. The kind of thing you might hear Sean Lock or Russell Howard come up with on a Friday night comedy show. You will possibly have no idea of just how deeply wounding a comment like this really is.

These two sentences reveal a number of things. First, he has clearly been hunting for information on me online. And he will have to have been looking quite hard to find it. Welcome to the world on online dating, I guess.

Second, and this is key, he regards me as a fraud. Not the person I say I am. And that he has 'found me out', blown open my 'little game'.

I presented myself to him as a woman. It was of course no act. I am a woman. But not, it would seem, according to him. These words - and it is very painful for me even to type this sentence - say that I am a man. And he, with that easy, unexamined cultural privilege, the bigotry from which all else springs, believes he has the right to say this to me, to assert his definition of me, cancelling my own completely. To wipe away an evening together, my presentation of myself to him, in fact to erase my own right to my own identity completely. To wipe me away and in the space I occupied place a liar.

And he feels so secure in doing this that he believes he can even couch it as a 'joke'. My identity - and all that it has cost me to find a way to live authentically - is not even worth taking seriously. Everything I am is reduced to some sort of dishonest 'prank' - created to deceive him and a world which has his back and gives him the confidence to say such things.

I replied calling him "cruel". It wasn't a great reply, not one of my best, but I could hardly breathe with pain. I pointed out, actually, that I do not have 'more testosterone' than him (ironically, the 'joke' fails on every level as of course my story means that I have very little of it in my body. I even know exactly how much. My current level is 0.5 nmol/L - sitting nicely within the 'typically' female range of 0 - 2.7 nmol/L). I added to him that I have no difficulty in sharing my past with those I care about and trust.

Clearly he will never be one of those people.

After I received this text I spent the rest of the day trying to hold back the tears, trying to look energetic and managerial to my team and to my company. Until I came home, of course, where I cried for an hour.

It is a small thing. Microscopic, compared with what many face. But it seems to me to illustrate something. The attitude from which it comes - I am quite sure that this lies completely unexamined in his mind (that's the nature of prejudice and privilege) - is the tributary of blind bigotry flowing mile by mile towards a bigger river of violence and hate.

There were of course a number of ways in which he might have expressed his discomfort with me - none of them very attractive (and in various other settings I have heard plenty) - but options were available to him that might have allowed me to retain some dignity. If my background, found by him without my permission, gave him anxiety, he might have withdrawn politely. But, buying into society's trope that people like me exist only to 'trick' people like him, he consciously sought to exact some sort of 'revenge' by making our final interaction one in which he needed to demean me, denying me my dignity, and he felt entitled to do so. This man who - as I reflect on the evening now - seemed to have done so much less with his life than I have done with mine. Yet I am now destined to become just a punchline in the pub with his friends.

My date that night was no Nazi. Of course not. He had seemed pleasant and personable and quite good company. And I am sure he didn't think of himself as a bigot either. But the fluency with which he moved from what had been an enjoyable evening of conversation into a profound and confident rejection of my most basic, personal rights hit me very hard.

It showed me once more what often lies beneath.

And beneath is the place where all the rest of it starts.

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